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Tales from the bath tub

03/18/2016

Unknown-45

The day after FC United of Manchester won the Northern Premier League last April I trekked out to the ExCeL Arena in east London to pick up my number for the London Marathon the following Sunday. Still giddy from the night before, I tweeted something daft about late night celebratory boozing only days before running a marathon perhaps not being the best preparation for race day. I thought nothing much of it. Just another “look at me” update casually tossed into the twittersphere for no one in particular. So I was mildly surprised to get a reply from FC United’s official Twitter account enquiring if I would consider using my marathon place to raise money for the club. To be honest, it struck me as a bit cheeky that I was effectively being asked to consider kicking off a fund raising campaign barely four days before the event itself. Anyone who has ever raised sponsorship money will know that it can take weeks and months of mithering family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues to get a decent total. And, for all the club knew, I might already have been raising money for another cause.

I declined the offer pointing out that the timing didn’t feel right and, anyway, for several weeks another FC United supporter training for the Manchester Marathon had already staged a well publicised, and successful, fund raising campaign that had generated a four figure sum for the club. It’s not that I’m a heartless monster, I’ve run the minithon several times to raise money for the club, but to keep asking supporters for funds week after week, well, it just doesn’t feel right to me. With any fund raising effort there has to be an element of knowing and respecting your audience and not taking the piss. And, anyway, shouldn’t the club be a bit more organised in the way that it approaches people to participate in fund raising rather than simply rolling up a few days before an event with a half-hearted “spare any change mate?”. There are plenty of enthusiastic runners amongst FC United’s support as we’ve witnessed with the annual minithon. Why not, at the beginning of each year approach them to see if they would be interested in running a marathon or a half marathon or a 10k race to raise funds for the club?

In hindsight, perhaps the ill-timed tweet shouldn’t have been a surprise at all, as it’s merely a small example of the ineptitude of FC United’s fund raising over the last year or so. At times it’s felt like it’s being led by some fresh-faced spreadsheet monkey but, no, the fund raising role is meant to be sufficiently remunerated for the club to attract an “expert” fund raiser. Well, that was the idea anyway. One of the present incumbent’s early brainwaves was to boost the takings from the prestigious friendly match against Benfica last May, the first match at Broadhurst Park, with a one-off programme price increase of 50p. It’s a decision that has had huge consequences for the club. Some members appalled at the club breaking one of its founding principles and indulging in “outright commercialism” withdrew their membership and left the club. Others, like myself, who have stayed have significantly reduced their financial contribution to the club such that the recent month-long crowd funding campaign to raise £15,000 to kit out a temporary building that will provide accommodation for the youth team and assist the club’s community work has, by our own high standards, failed miserably. So, what has the club’s response been to this? Oh, let’s run the crowd funding campaign for another four weeks and continue to bombard our members with increasingly desperate emails. Problem solved. At times it’s laughable how incompetent it all is.

Anyway, winding the clock forward, I was out running again last Saturday. This time a nineteen mile training run in preparation for next month’s London Marathon but fuelled only by four jelly babies and simmering anger at the latest off-pitch shenanigans at FC United. Usually I’d have a bowl of porridge before I tackled such a distance but, to be honest, there was no need for it as by the time I left home there was performance enhancing steam pouring out of my ears. If the club carries on like this I reckon I’ll be breaking the world marathon record come the last Sunday in April. Sharapova should bin the meldonium and get herself an FC United membership. It’s better than drugs this.

The reason for my ire was the latest flabbergasting blunder-bolt in a season full of them; the revelation that in December FC United’s Board voted to conduct an independent investigation into “abuse” that Board members, staff and volunteers were allegedly receiving on internet discussion forums and social media. Dave Boyle, the former chief executive of Supporters Direct and a friend of General Manager Andy Walsh and longstanding Board member Adam Brown, was apparently offered £900 to take on the role of Witchfinder General. NINE HUNDRED BLOODY POUNDS of co-owners’ money. This is a man who had apparently already taken a look at the supporters’ internet forum and remarked that he felt like he “needed a bath” afterwards. So much for casting an “independent” eye there then. Without a hint of irony, one of the leading lights of the supporter ownership movement was offered a hefty sum of a supporter-owned football club’s money to snoop on the internet activity of co-owners of that very football club, once the poster boys and girls of the supporter ownership movement. This at a time when the club is struggling financially to adjust to the stresses and strains of owning our own ground.

Boyle initially accepted this “project” (bless!) and then quickly pulled out after apparently receiving some “unpleasant” messages and a threatening phone call. It’s worth pointing out that he also received more than a few mild-mannered messages from FC United supporters expressing their disappointment with the actions of someone that they had previously respected. But that’s perhaps less newsworthy in the tit for tat world of social media so we’ll gloss over it. It’s also worth remembering that this is the very same Dave Boyle who, minutes after AFC Wimbledon were promoted to the football league in 2011, infamously tweeted offensive and obscene remarks at a lawyer involved with the decision to move Wimbledon football club to Milton Keynes and the MK Dons’ chairman Peter Winkelman. The absolute bare-faced hypocrisy of it all seems lost on the General Manager and most of the Board.

If we want to tackle abuse and “unpleasant” behaviour how about offering a duty of care to decent match going Reds who regularly suffer abuse and harassment at matches? Again, at the recent match at Worcester City, we saw some individuals, without any provocation, abusing fellow supporters for a large part of the match. It’s not the first time this has happened this season and one of the individuals involved has already been warned as to his future conduct at matches. Forget the jobs for the boys internet surveillance what is the club doing to address this “shameful” behaviour on the terraces?

Meanwhile you wouldn’t get a sniff of any of this aggro from the club’s sanguine public profile. “”Shining example” Broadhurst Park is named best new non-league stadium” says one news story on the club’s website. “Saturday’s crowd is a record breaker” cries the headline on another and adds that crowds are 53% up on last season. Crowds of more than three thousand have been the norm at Broadhurst Park and last Saturday’s gate of 3,432 against Fylde took the aggregate for the season to the highest ever in the National League North. An incredible level of support, week in week out, at this level of football. And despite our on-pitch struggles in our first season in National League North the club now boasts more than 5,300 co-owners making it the largest supporter-owned football club in the country (by number of members).

In addition, FC’s public profile in the vanguard of the supporter ownership movement is perhaps higher than ever. The club has a representative on the Board of Supporters Direct to enable it to “influence the direction of the organisation”. And FC United played a prominent role in the recent press coverage of the government’s Football Expert Working Group on supporter ownership and getting fans more involved in the running of football clubs with Andy Walsh widely quoted in the papers.

The club’s cheer leading Twitter account, only too happy to keep retweeting the considerable amount of, well earned, praise that the club has received over the last few years from far and wide seems to have a mental blockage when it comes to even the remotest criticism. At Board level, it’s the same with words of criticism, no matter how polite or constructive, often addressed with almost breathtaking “let them eat cake” arrogance by some Board members. There’s a potentially fascinating article to be written here for any journalist prepared to do a bit of digging. Yet, of late, only the Morning Star, hardly renowned for its circulation numbers, has cast a mildly critical eye in the club’s direction with an excellent piece on the struggle that the club faces to stay true to its founding principles.

There is so much to love about this football club of ours that it depresses me to sit here being so bloody miserable. But we are, as we are proud of saying, a “democratic supporter owned football club” and with that comes responsibilities. If we feel that the people that we elect to run this club are not doing a good job then we have a responsibility to say so. Far from the Board operating Stasi-like surveillance of our internet activity we, as co-owners, should be maintaining a very close eye on the actions and words of the General Manager and our elected Board members. Anything else would be a failure of the democracy that we are only too happy to keep banging on about.

Through all of this the thing that most rankles with me is not so much that cock-ups have been made, no one ever said that owning and running our own football club would be easy, but that the Board and General Manager have, at times, completely lacked any sense of humility and the ability to just hold up their hands and say “sorry”. I don’t expect the Board to be anywhere near perfect, we’re all human beings, we all make mistakes and, yes, as we keep being informed there is a sense that some of this is a learning experience for all involved. But when they do mess up as they have done on numerous occasions in the last twelve months it would be helpful if they would actually acknowledge that a mistake has been made and try to put things right; show some decency, some politeness, some basic human warmth instead of flinging up a defensive wall and pressing on as if nothing is wrong at all. It raises hackles.

How can we pretend that the 50p increase in price for the Benfica programme was not a hugely damaging mistake that has potentially cost the club thousands of pounds? Many supporters feared that might be the case at the time but why couldn’t the Board see that and why, with ten months worth of hindsight, will it not even begin to acknowledge that a mistake was made? Likewise inviting a Tory minister to Broadhurst Park in the week of the Tory conference in Manchester. What on earth were we thinking? And how can a football club that inspired such a truly beautifully written book as An Undividable Glow (a book written about the club’s first season) and possesses amongst its ranks some excellent writers also spew out some dreadful, corporate twaddle like the recently released draft Code of Conduct. And while we’re at it, how about a public word of thanks for the volunteers at Course You Can Malcolm (because let’s face it it’s probably not going to return is it?) who consistently made match days at Gigg Lane something special and in doing so raised thousands for the club? Or maybe a word of thanks for former programme editor Tony Howard who produced a first rate programme week in week out for many seasons? Or is it too much effort to say thank you to people who the club appears to have fallen out with? If so, I’m not sure that’s a football club I want to be part of. How can we evangelise about the wonders of supporter ownership when we treat our own volunteers, contractors and supporters with such disdain?

Amidst the gloom, there is some hope. It was noticeable that the four Board members who voted against using the club’s money to snoop on co-owners were all new members, elected at last November’s AGM and the openness and honesty of each of these four has been a breath of fresh air and one of the bright spots of the last few months. The others would do well to look and learn. And regular matchday Board surgeries, opportunities to question Board members on issues, albeit still in their early days, have to be a good thing in engendering a civilised discussion between the Board and co-owners.

The club’s annual meeting on 24th April will be an interesting one. It’s also the day of the London marathon for me. But after weeks of going out in the pissing rain to do training runs five times a week, I’ll happily jack all that in to attend this meeting if there is a chance that, just for once, we will hear the club’s General Manager and Board apologise for recent mistakes and try to draw a line under this annus horribilis and unite as a football club. It might be the biggest single thing that we do to boost fund raising over the next few months. Some have long since disappeared and are no longer around to listen but for those of us who remain I genuinely believe that it would make a big difference and begin to melt some of the ice that has built up over the last year. If not, the thought of us heading towards next season with more co-owners leaving (and possibly taking community shares with them) and others unwilling to pay more than the bare minimum for season tickets must surely set alarm bells ringing. It’s going to be a crucial few weeks for the future of this football club.

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2 Comments
  1. Well said an well wrote

  2. Kahkakew Yawassanay permalink

    FC have shred the mystical image of a supporters owned club that would change the way the game is played, managed and viewed to reveal its ugly truth as being nothing more than hypocrisy at its worst….a minature clone version of ManU for pre glazer supporters who seek to live in the illegal limelight of trophies their former club won be use they were. Able to run up massive debts year in to out bid competitors for the top talent and did this for many seasons well before 2005 takeover… The audacity to constantly promote the utter BS of two clubs, one soul or that without Manu FCUM would not exist speaks of the arrogance and disrespect for co-owners who support and supported FC because of clubs like ManU who continue to focus on profits and the game a very distant second smacks of such hypocrisy. It has become evident to this co-owner that FC are nothing more than a surrogate ManU that exists to soothe some alleged loss of another time when the game mattered before corporate greed took over but in reality FCUM are the medium now for ManU supporters who said they would not support the club but now defend and spend as much time on FC’s fb page talking and honouring Manu than discussing cure to issues with FCUM….the line no longer exists as many co-owners cowardice to cut the cord between their old club has been become questionable acts of projection with FCUM now being the vehicle. It took 10 years for this movement of hypocrites to unmask the elves and now one sits back as they act out their unresolved feelings and thoughts for another club through the day to day operations of FCUM. Add in the drink and it is no surprise FCUM is quickly becoming a train wreck…..only in Manchester

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